Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, original first movement for No. 2. Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 382.

Of Tchaikovsky’s six or seven symphonies (depending on how you regard Manfred), Nos. 4-6 get most of the attention, with No. 2 often the odd man out. In this newest cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies from Maestro Mikhail Pletnev, we get another of his well-ordered if somewhat dispassionate readings of the works. Still, given the lyrical, song-filled nature of the Second Symphony, there is much to commend Pletnev’s rational approach.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17, in 1872, premiered it in 1873, and revised it extensively about seven years later. Critics and audiences liked it quite a lot, perhaps because of the abundance of Russian folk music the composer included in it, much of it coming from the Ukrainian region dubbed “Little Russia” and leading to the symphony’s nickname as the “Little Russian.” It is generally a joyous, jubilant piece, its festive nature undoubtedly contributing to its popularity.

By the time the opening movement reaches its second theme Allegro vivo, Pletnev has worked up a suitably red-blooded passion, something much of his Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for PentaTone has lacked. Then in the second movement we hear even more of the Russian folk-inflected music for which fans know the work. The composer marked it “quasi moderato,” and it is a kind of quasi march, beginning with march rhythms and then alternating them with several songs.

In the Scherzo Pletnev propels the music forward with particular vigor, although I still miss some of the ardor I hear in conductors like Jansons (Chandos), Muti (EMI), Abbado (DG), Haitink (Philips), even Pletnev himself in his earlier recording for DG. Nevertheless, the interpretation tends to blend well with Pletnev’s other well-reasoned Tchaikovsky readings for PentaTone.

It’s in the Finale that Pletnev comes into his own; maybe he was saving it all up for the big finish, just as Tchaikovsky did. In any case, there is a grandiloquent element here that Pletnev catches well, with energy aplenty. The conductor lights it up with a spark somewhat missing earlier.

As an accompanying piece, Pletnev plays Tchaikovsky’s original first movement of the Second Symphony. It is considerably longer and somewhat different in tone from the version we usually hear. Tchaikovsky had said of the original work, “My God, what a difficult, noisy, incoherent piece!” Perhaps so, but the original first movement makes fascinating listening, with its more melancholic mood and abundance of sometimes plaintive, sometimes rousing melodies. Tchaikovsky had favored the lighter, more rhapsodic qualities of the revision, yet it’s no wonder other critics of day preferred the composer’s first impressions. Incidentally, for a recording of the complete original Symphony No. 2, the reader couldn’t do much better than hearing Geoffrey Simon’s interpretation with the LSO on Chandos.

PentaTone recorded the symphony in multichannel at DZZ Studio 5, Moscow, in 2011, and they released it here on a hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD. In the stereo SACD layer to which I listened, the sound was quite good, very robust, with strong dynamic contrasts, especially in the Finale. Although it is isn’t the most transparent sound you’ll find, it is fairly natural. The midrange has a most lifelike quality about it; the bass is modest, not too prominent, and like the dynamics makes its presence known primarily in the final movement; and the treble is a bit soft. Moreover, there is a reasonable sense of depth to set off the realism of the sonic picture, particularly evident in the SACD layer.

One small quibble in closing: At only a bit over half an hour, the Second Symphony most often these days comes coupled with more music than we find here, sometimes with another Tchaikovsky symphony. Even with the first-movement coupling the total playing time amounts to little more than forty-eight minutes for the entire album. It seems rather short value, given the price of the disc.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa